Toby Alington: Live show recording and the audience

There’s an old saying, ‘Don’t push the river’. For me, that’s about the most important thing with getting the excitement from a live gig to permeate the final mix. One of my pet hates is when I hear a live gig, which sounds pretty much like the original album; all the warts and feel scrubbed off, and the whole thing presented as a squeaky-clean “isn’t it amazing how perfect this all is” soundtrack. Audience all replaced with samples to avoid colouration, everything gated, some tracks replaced with stems from the original album, overdubbed vocals, everything nicely in place and about one per cent of the original emotion left in the performance.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for curative processes, including tuning, fixing the odd wrong note in the band, mixing in a forgiving way, and adding little bits of audio smoke and mirrors to make performance ripples less noticeable. But the excitement comes from the live performance and the live audience reaction to the show, and the trick is partly to allow the listener to believe they’re at the gig. Or wish they’d been there when they hear the recording.

Audience reaction is a huge part of this. I worked with director David Mallet for many years on huge live shows. David could never have enough audience in the mix, and I kind of agree – as long as it’s believable. About ten years ago, in Tina Turner’s Wembley Stadium show, which David directed, at the start of ‘Simply The Best’ the audience reaction eclipses the music for a few bars, and it works brilliantly. Hairs on the back of the neck. There’s a similar moment in Take That’s Beautiful World DVD soundtrack in the middle of ‘Rule The World’ where we used a similar trick. It doesn’t detract, it literally lifts the audience out of their seats.

I’ve been asked a few times by recording engineers working on a live show soundtrack how to stop the audience “ruining” the mix. Well, it’s an intrinsic part of the mix. I would never start mixing a live gig without knowing at the back of my mind how the audience is going to affect it, add to it and benefit it. The audience should never be an unwanted evil, but then that does depend a little on how well they’ve been mic’d up. My standard London O2 rig, for example, comprises around twenty mics. In post-production I usually time align these, and mix a 4.0 audience to add to my 5.1 music mix, and then control how much of the ‘front’ and ‘rear’ mixes goes into the stereo.

Unless there’s something majorly horrid happening in the hall, I always leave the audience trickling into the mix during songs. It adds a certain something, and you miss it if you mute it. There’s nothing purist about this; like trying to define a certain seat in the auditorium, it’s all an illusion, which is aimed at emoting the listener into feeling the ‘liveness’ and excitement of the show.

The BRIT Awards is a major challenge, as a large proportion of the show audience are a little restrained. I’ll explain next month how we make this show roar along in an article about my 18th BRIT Awards soundtrack; we’re live to air on February 21st, ITV1.

One other key thing for me in live mixing is to join up the holes between the direct feeds and close-mic’ing with the ambience in the venue. The venue is a reverb, and we need reverb and effects on close mic’s. Making artificial reverbs and the venue sympathetic to each other, rather than both of them doing the same job, is paramount in making the audience part of the music mix.

I’ve written a lot about audience reaction, but then I feel it’s a very important balance to achieve. But of course the music mix is where it’s really at. I’m very lucky to have worked on countless live shows – single- and multi-artist – over the last 25 years, and from that experience comes the ability to set up a mix on one or two soundcheck run-throughs and then go live to air with that snapshot of the mix. It’s just a different way of working; it’s all about going at 100mph for a couple of three minute run-throughs during the soundcheck, and then continuing to refine by memory and by the ‘numbers’ until storing the snapshot. Next time you’ll hear it, we’re live on air. Not quite the calm and focus of recording albums in the studio.

On any of my live mixes, I’m sure you could pick holes in my drum sound, in the fine balance of guitars and keys, in the relationship between playback stems and live percussion and so on. But I hope finesse is replaced with the live excitement shining through, in the same way that No Woman No Cry live from 1975 is unbeatable.

Over the last couple of decades, we’ve also gained a huge advantage with good PA companies having a stock of great mics. It’s very rare nowadays that I’ll ever double-mic something or ask for a microphone to be changed. And in fairness, on most of the shows that I do, that luxury of time isn’t there; we just take our feeds from the splitters and deal with it. Much as we’d love to have “the right mic’ in the right place,” with fond memories of trying different approaches in the studio to every element, it’s not an option.

If this all sounds like an awful compromise, it really isn’t. It’s about a live band on the end of some mics and DIs, and my fun job is simply interpreting this performance to an audience listening on little wooden boxes in their living room. It’s many miles away from studio technique, largely because you don’t have that control and finesse, but you do have the huge advantage of a live band and a live audience – you can’t beat that for musical excitement as long as you don’t fight it.